Important Conservative thinkers

Summary: key themes and key thinkers

Thomas Hobbes

Edmund Burke

Michael Oakeshott

Robert Nozick

Ayn Rand

The state arises ‘contractually’ from individuals who seek order and security. To serve its purpose, the state must be autocratic and awesome. Any system of political rule, however tyrannical, is preferable to no rule at all. 

The state arises organically and should be aristocratic, driven by a hereditary elite, reared to rule in the interests of all. Burke also argued for a state that was based on multiple small communities, his ‘little platoons’. Only in such accessible and intimate communities could individuals begin to grow in their affection and loyalty to the national state.

Huge, distant and centralised structures could never undertake the benevolent, paternalist functions Burke envisaged for the state.

The state should be guided by tradition and practical concerns.

Pragmatism, not dogmatism, should be its watchword.

The minarchist or 'Night Watchman'  state should merely outsource, renew and reallocate contracts to private companies providing public services. the growth of government was the gravest contemporary threat to individual freedom. More specifically, Nozick thought the growth of welfare states in western Europe fostered a dependency culture.

Nozick saw the state as very much the procurer and not provider of public services.

Its function was to secure the best deal for taxpayers when it came to delivering

public services. Large state institutions were unwieldy and inefficient and needed

to be broken up and outsourced to private contractors

The state should confine itself to law, order and national security. Any attempt to promote ‘positive liberty’, via further state intervention, should be resisted. She wrote: ‘The small state is the strong state.

For Rand, law, order and national security should be the primary concerns of the state.


The state

all conservative thinkers would argue that it is a core role of the state to safeguard national security and defence of the realm. They also concur that the state has no place in owning or managing vast swathes of industry and the economy, or in redistributing wealth on a huge scale in the interests of so-called fairness and justice. However, there are differences in how far the state should get involved in, for example, providing public services, and how much it should get involved and try to mshape individuals’ lives.


There can be no

‘society’ until the creation of a

state brings order

and authority to human affairs. Life until then is ‘nasty, brutish and short’.


Society is organic and multi-faceted,

comprising a host of small communities and organisations

(‘little platoons’).



communities are essential to humanity’s survival, especially when guided by short-term requirements rather

than abstract ideas.


Society should be geared to individual self-fulfilment.

This may lead to a plethora of small, variable communities reflecting their members’ diverse tastes and philosophies. libertarianism is tolerant of a liberal, ‘permissive society’ and takes a relaxed view of issues like abortion, divorce and homosexuality.


society does not exist in any practical form, it was ideally just a loose collection of independent individuals.

society is atomistic: the mere sum total

of its individuals. Any attempt to restrict individuals in the name of society should be



Cynical: Humans are needy and vulnerable People will compete violently to get the basic necessities of life and other material gains, will challenge others and fight out of fear to ensure their personal safety, and will seek reputation, both for its own sake and so that others will be too afraid to challenge them.

Human nature had to be tamed and controlled by making a contract with a higher power, which in turn would provide stability and guarantee freedoms..

Sceptical: the ‘crooked timber of humanity’ is marked by a gap between aspiration and achievement. We may conceive of perfection but we are unable to achieve it.

 Burke stressed mankind’s fallibility and its tendency to fail more than succeed. He therefore denounced the idealistic society that the French Revolution represented, claiming it was based on a utopian — and thus unrealistic view of human nature.

Most men and women, are ‘fallible but not terrible’ and ‘imperfect but not immoral’. Though incapable of the ‘perfect’ societies linked to other ideologies, humanity was still able to secure ‘both pleasure and improvement through the humdrum business of everyday life’.

Conservatives, ‘prefer the familiar to the unknown, the actual to the possible, the convenient to the perfect…present laughter to utopian bliss’.

Oakeshott argued for a more qualified and slightly more optimistic take on human nature, seeing individuals more as ‘imperfect but not immoral’. 

Egotistical: individuals are driven by a quest for ‘self-ownership’, allowing them to realise their full potential.

individuals have self-ownership — that they are the sole authors of their talents and abilities and should be left alone to realise

them, without the intervention of government.

Nozick,  believed that human nature was underpinned by what he termed ‘self-ownership’, namely the absolute rights that all individuals have over their own rights, and that therefore no one else has the right to interfere without explicit permission. This approach could be summarised as ‘I am the rightful owner of myself’.

Objectivist’: we are — and ought to be — guided by rational self-interest and the pursuit of self- fulfilment.

Human Nature

Constructive and enduring economic activity is impossible without a state guaranteeing order and security.

Trade should involve ‘organic’ free markets and laissez-faire capitalism.

Burke stressed the need for private property rights to be respected and that it was the duty of the state to protect and defend private ownership from revolutionary ideas that would otherwise disastrously damage the fabric of the economy. His views on the economy are partly found in his memorandum Thoughts and Details on Scarcity (1795). Here he argued that it was not the government’s responsibility to provide for the necessities of life. Private charity (paternalism) rather than state aid should help alleviate suffering. Like later conservatives, he favoured the free

market over state intervention. For Burke and others, such a move

would represent an unwarranted interference with the laws of the free market.

Free markets are volatile and unpredictable, and may require pragmatic moderation by the state, but he was still a staunch defender of private property as a guarantor of wider freedoms. In his paper The Political Economy of Freedom (1949), for example, he argued that power must be diffused and that as property represented a form of power, its distribution must also therefore be widespread and not monopolised by the few, including perhaps above all by the government.

. As Oakeshott put it, ‘The institution of property most favourable to liberty is, unquestionably, a right to private property least qualified by arbitrary limits and exclusions.’

The minarchist state should detach itself from a privatised and deregulated economy, merely arbitrating disputes between private economic organisations.

Nozick  was damning of any attempts by the state to disrupt free-

market capitalism. As mentioned already, he saw taxation as theft and any actions

by the state to reallocate wealth as an end in itself as profoundly immoral.

‘tax, for the most part, is theft’

Free-market capitalism is an expression of ‘objectivist’ individualism and should not be hindered by the state.

State collectivism was to be deplored and never welcomed. The seizure of her middle-class Russian father’s property during the Russian Revolution undoubtedly shaped her thinking.

The Economy